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The Strange Death of the Uyghur Internet

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Making a living as a programmer also became hard, says a former Bilkan developer, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his family’s safety. In 2016, the government started requiring that websites establish Communist Party branches or be supervised by a party member, making it difficult to avoid blacklisting. 

Authorities have also expanded the list of blocked websites from Google and other Western social media platforms to GitHub and Stack Overflow, popular developer tool platforms that remain available to coders in the rest of China.

Targeting of the Uyghur IT sector, especially website owners, keeps happening because these individuals are influential in society, says Abduweli Ayup, a language activist who has been keeping a tally of Xinjiang intellectuals who have disappeared into the camp system, a list containing names of over a dozen people working in the technology sector. “They are the leading force in the economy—and after that leading force disappears, people become poor,”  Ayup says. 

Xinjiang’s digital erasure is only the most recent blow to its online sphere. In 2009, after riots exploded in Urumqi, China hit back with an internet shutdown and a wave of arrests of bloggers and webmasters. Advocacy organization Uyghur Human Rights Project estimates that over 80 percent of Uyghur websites did not return after the shutdown. 

But even though the region was plagued by small-scale periodic internet blackouts, the Uyghur internet had grown vibrant. And for the Uyghur community, those websites were a place for both rediscovering Islamic religious practices and having conversations about hot-button issues such as homophobia, trans issues, and sexism. More importantly, the internet helped Uyghurs create an image of themselves different from the one offered by Chinese state media, says Rebecca Clothey, associate professor at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. “An online space in which they can talk about issues that are relevant to them gives them the ability to have a way of thinking about themselves as a unified mass,”  she says. “Without that, they’re scattered.” 

Uyghurs in Xinjiang now use domestic platforms and apps made by China’s tech giants. Although WeChat still hosts Uyghur-language accounts, the platform is known for its censorship system.

Some Uyghurs, however, have found tiny cracks in the wall through which they communicate and express themselves. People hold up signs with messages during video calls, out of fear that their conversations may be monitored. Young people are switching their conversations to gaming apps.

On China’s version of TikTok, ByteDance-owned Douyin, Uyghurs have been stealthily filming scenes from Xinjiang that differ from state propaganda videos showing smiling dancers in traditional robes. Some have filmed themselves crying over pictures of their loved ones. Others have captured orphanages with children of detained Uyghurs or people being loaded onto buses, a possible reference to forced labor. The clips are stripped of information, leaving conclusions to the viewers.

Recently, Chinese authorities have been rolling back some controls over the Uyghur language, says Byler. In late 2019, Beijing announced that people held in vocational training centers in China had all “graduated,” while scaling back some of the more visible signs of its high-tech police state. 

Uyghurs abroad, however, say that many of their friends and relatives are still in camps or have received arbitrary prison sentences. Ekpar Asat was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination. And although some parts of the Uyghur internet are archived for future digital archaeology, much of it has simply vanished forever. “That’s just been eliminated overnight, and there’s not much of a way of recovering that information,” says Byler.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of WIRED UK magazine.

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